Mei Lin, who hates having her hands touched, tensed as the massage therapist worked down her arm. She wanted to ask the massage therapist to stop, but her throat closed around the words. She wanted to pull away, but could not move. She struggled silently with her discomfort until the massage therapist moved on to her neck, ashamed of her inability to speak up.
As explained in “Anxiety: Your Relaxation Coach,” a threatening event triggers activation into a full fight or flight response. If the nervous system perceives an overwhelming threat with no possibility of overcoming it, even more activation results in a freeze response (top of diagram).
A freeze response includes physical collapse, stillness, and dissociation from the body. As Peter Levine describes in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, a gazelle first flees a cheetah with all its strength, and then, when the cheetah is almost upon it, collapses to the ground in surrender. This shields the gazelle from pain when attacked, and could cause the cheetah to lose interest.
If the cheetah does wander off, the gazelle eventually trembles back into connection with itself. The trembling discharges the intense activation energy of the chase and allows the gazelle to settle back into peaceful grazing.
In humans, social conditioning often interrupts the full activation cycle. Running from danger, yelling, fighting back, and trembling are politely suppressed, leaving activation energy trapped in the system. This decreases the system’s capacity to handle stress and makes the freeze response more likely during the next threatening event. The stuck energy manifests as depression, general feelings of helplessness, and other signs of trauma.
Out of resources
We often view surrender as shameful, weak, or cowardly, even though a freeze response indicates that the nervous system and the body are out of resources.
We are tempted to judge because it was not a life-or-death situation, or because we could have taken a different action with more resources available. A recent freeze may also carry feelings of shame and terror stored from a past freeze in a more dangerous situation. We are taught to blame ourselves for not expressing our boundaries in words and actions, even though a frozen body is expressing urgent distress as best it can.
During a freeze
When you find yourself blocked from moving or speaking, you can
- Notice the freeze. “Oh, I’m frozen.“
- Drop any “shoulds” about asserting boundaries.
- Wait with kind awareness as the freeze continues and then thaws. You will thaw.
While you are frozen, these are the most constructive actions available whether you are in present danger or not. After you thaw, you can take action to address any danger.
As you come out of a freeze in safety, you may feel exhausted and need rest. You may also come out feeling panicked, trapped, or helpless in a flashback to an earlier freeze experience. Remind yourself that it ended and you are alive and safe. Look around the room and ground yourself firmly in the present.
The panicked part of you may be outraged that you are (apparently) ignoring an emergency. Keep interrupting with, “It ended.” Once the interruption takes hold, the panic subsides into slightly embarrassed relief that the emergency is finally over.
Tune in to your body
During the thaw, tune in to your body and allow any movements that arise. You may tremble, quiver, jerk, or gesture as old energy leaves your body. You may feel tingling or warmth as well.
When the reaction completes, alert calmness and engagement with the present return. Some people report seeing in color again, or noticing details of familiar environments for the first time.
Take action when you can
If certain situations trigger freezes for you, explore taking action before or after a freeze. When you protect yourself from situations that feel dangerous to your body, helplessness and disconnection are replaced with the direct experience of your strength and power in the present. As you heal, your perception of danger will change spontaneously. It is not necessary to push yourself through activities that feel threatening.
Mei Lin could tell massage therapists in advance that she does not want her hands worked on. She can also ask them to check in with her if she becomes very still and to stop touching her if she does not respond. If a conversation in advance is still too difficult or triggering, Mei Lin can discontinue massage or change practitioners. It is not therapeutic nor relaxing to receive bodywork while frozen.
A freeze can involve the whole body, or only a part. As Mei Lin moves through freezes with awareness, she notices that her voice and her hands are frozen, but she can still wiggle her toes and even push away with both feet.
Sometimes a freeze is the result of a double bind. Caught between the need to do something and not do it, the body locks up. For example, if someone witnesses abuse in the workplace but must ignore it to keep her job, the need to both turn toward it and turn away from it can lead to a chronically stiff neck.
If you feel deeply conflicted during a freeze, you can connect and ask your body what it wants to do, focusing on one need at a time. Simply bringing attention to each need can ease the conflict and restore movement.
Full permission to freeze
Freezing is a core physiological response we share with all mammals. When you give yourself full permission to feel helpless and frozen, it paradoxically creates space for healing and effective action.
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine contains groundbreaking information about the body’s response to trauma and how to heal afterward. Use caution: it also contains disbelief in response to a ritual abuse survivor’s memories.